Cubs-Cardinals rivalry spices up race for top National League manager

Stark convinced Joe Maddon will win NL Manager of the Year (1:31)

ESPN baseball insider Jayson Stark says he doesn't see a scenario where Cubs manager Joe Maddon does not win the NL Manager of the Year award. (1:31)

"I don't know who put out the hit. I don't know if Tony Soprano is in the dugout. I didn't see him in there." -- Chicago Cubs manager Joe Maddon, Friday, after the St. Louis Cardinals threw a pitch behind first baseman Anthony Rizzo.

Tony Soprano isn't going to win the National League manager-of-the-year award. But I'd like to thank him now, for all of us, for dropping in to liven up the discussion about it.

Even before "That Quote" came out of Joe Maddon's mouth over the weekend, in the middle of an epic Cubs-Cardinals series, this 2015 NL manager-of-the-year debate was already more fun than a 300-mile drive on Interstate 55.

But now? In the wake of "That Quote?" I'm in. I'm hooked. I'm more interested in who's going to win this award than I've ever been in my life. Not that that's saying much. On the scale of major awards, if the MVP is a 9, the manager of the year is a 2. It is to baseball awards what the Academy Award for best makeup and hair styling is to the Oscars.

But not this year. Not anymore. Not when the manager of the Chicago Cubs is comparing the St. Louis Cardinals -- and, by inference at least, the manager in the other dugout, Mike Matheny -- to TV's most beloved mob boss.

I'm going to predict right now that the manager of one of those teams is going to win this award. And that just adds another explosive layer to a rivalry that suddenly feels as if it's about a lot more than geographical proximity. But before we get into that, I also want to acknowledge that Maddon and Matheny aren't even the only serious candidates.

In Pittsburgh, Clint Hurdle is so good at his job, he could win this thing every year -- and especially in a season when his team has recovered from a rough start to rip off the best record in baseball since May 20.

In New York, those offensively challenged Mets of April/May/June/July could easily have hurtled out of contention -- but Terry Collins "definitely kept this thing pointed in the right direction," said infielder Daniel Murphy, "when it very easily could have gone off the rails."

So I hope everyone who has a ballot (I'm not on that list) gives both of those men the serious consideration they deserve. But realistically, if I were assessing the credentials of this group, I'd be singing a lot of brain cells right now trying to separate Maddon from Matheny. That's a ridiculously challenging job.

They've both gotten more out of their teams than seems humanly possible. They're both as good as it gets at this gig. And what makes this so fascinating is that they're good at it in such different ways.

If we were casting them in, say, a Ben Affleck film, Matheny would be Affleck's suave, brainy sidekick, keeping his cool against all odds as the roof caught on fire and the tornado funnel approached. Maddon, meanwhile, would be the kids' favorite cool teacher, showing up for biology class with a bunch of circus clowns just to make sure nobody got bored.

Yet that's way too simple a portrayal, because they both have so many layers to them. What they have in common is that they're both leaders, with a capital L. And their teams -- and the seasons they've had -- totally reflect that.

First, let's consider just some of the challenging stuff that Matheny had to deal with. Of course, we should really be holding that discussion in the emergency room, because, for the 2015 Cardinals, let's just say there have been a few mishaps.

Suppose I'd told you in March that the Cardinals would find themselves trying to play baseball for long periods of time, without Adam Wainwright, Matt Holliday, Matt Adams, Jon Jay, Randal Grichuk, Lance Lynn, Jaime Garcia, Jordan Walden and Matt Belisle. Would you have ever thought, for half a second, they'd have the best record in baseball right now?

I posed that question to their third baseman, Matt Carpenter, earlier this season. He laughed and said: "If you'd told me that even WITH those guys we'd have this record, I'd have taken it."

To do what they've done without those guys, that's borderline miraculous. Except to the manager.

"I don't put limits on what we can do," Matheny said, when we talked about this in midseason. "I think it's just that mindset, that we believe we can get better. And if each guy buys into that, we just keep going."

Ask yourself this: Who would buy it if the manager didn't have the weight, the presence or the conviction to sell it? Well, if you spend five minutes around Matheny, you'd be ready to buy whatever he's selling. Toasters. Egg Genies. Used Yugos. Whatever.

"He looks at adversity and embraces it," said his general manager, John Mozeliak, "and makes sure everyone else does."

Then there's Maddon. Ten months ago, when he started talking playoffs for one of the youngest teams in the big leagues, not to mention a team that had averaged 94 losses over the previous four seasons, did anyone believe that -- besides him, I mean?

Well, it's happening. And much of the reason it's happening is that Maddon made it his mission to get everyone around him to believe. He started on Day 1 of spring training. He hasn't stopped since. From Cutoffs and Relays Day to Tony Soprano Day. The belief campaign never ends.

"The biggest thing with a team this young," he said, "is you've got to get them to the point where they think they belong here and they can do this. And that takes a lot of patience, and redundancy. And the patient part of it is, when they make a mistake, don't get angry right away. That's not a punitive situation. That's a teachable moment. . . . All these young guys really had some tough moments. But you just keep teaching and talking. Keep teaching. Keep talking. Don't become bitter. And I think, because they're good enough, that they came out on the other side."

Still, I think it's important for everyone to have some perspective on how rare that is, for all those young players, talented as they may be, to make it to the other side - and have that journey lead them to October. So here's today's history lesson:

These Cubs have had six players, 25 or younger, get at least 200 plate appearances. Of the 20 previous teams to do that in the wild-card era, you know how many even had a winning record? Exactly two: Bobby Cox's 2005 Braves and Bob Melvin's 2007 Diamondbacks. And they both made the playoffs.

The other 18 teams averaged 95 losses. So that tells you all you need to know about how tough it is to navigate a team this young through the marathon -- and live to tell about it in October.

Could this group have done that without THIS manager and his relentless positivity? We'll never know. But from my perspective, I don't think there's a manager alive who was better equipped to take this Cubs team and show these guys how to ride their magic carpet.

No manager in this sport better understands how to balance the necessity of being demanding with the art of allowing fun and personal freedom. No one creates an environment in which young players can be themselves and play without pressure better than Maddon. And both his players and his bosses understand the unique impact Maddon has had on this group.

"Joe was the perfect manager for this team," said Cubs GM Jed Hoyer. "He's just got a great blend of the player-development side of managing and the ability to really use the analytics. He knows the right time to step on the gas and the right time to give guys a hug. Players love playing for him. That's the bottom line."

And of course, he's deep, cerebral and vocal, about all sorts of stuff. I spent 15 minutes in his office two weeks ago and heard him quote both Gandhi and the Dalai Lama -- wrapped around thoughts on why he wanted to play Javier Baez that night.

Matheny, on the other hand, can be weighty and thoughtful in a whole different way. He's just less likely to tell you everything that's on his mind. So even his own fan base sometimes isn't sure what to make of him -- because his strengths are less visible. And less audible.

"People don't get to see what happens in this clubhouse and the type of respect players have for him," Mozeliak said. "His day-to-day leadership is tremendous. And it's something he's cognizant of and works at. Unfortunately, that's not something the public gets to view."

What the public does get to view is his record, though. Which isn't merely great. It's historically great. This is Matheny's fourth season managing in the big leagues. All four will have ended with a trip to October. And how many other men have ever led their teams to the postseason in each of their first four years managing? That would be zero. Until now.

Nevertheless, how many manager-of-the-year awards has he won? That would also be zero. And in part, that's because you know what else those four seasons had in common? He was supposed to win. In every one of them. Just points out the absurdity that accompanies many manager-of-the-year elections: The more titles you win, the fewer awards you win.

"It's the ultimate narrative award," said one exec I bounced this theory off of recently. "It's an award that goes every year to the manager of a team that everyone decides exceeds its expectations. So I kind of feel sorry for Mike Matheny. He's doomed by the Cardinals. Doomed by their success and doomed by their expectations. And that really isn't fair."

You know what? I'd bet that's about to happen to him again. Because the narrative of the Cubs' season is the stuff manager-of-the-year awards are woven out of. And if that's how it plays out when this award gets handed out in November, well . . . uh-oh.

It doesn't figure to be a warm and fuzzy moment in the history of Cubs versus Cardinals. Let's put it that way.

Never have the managers of these two teams finished 1-2 in any manager-of-the-year election. So there's that. And amazingly, you have to go back 70 years -- to 1945 -- to find the last time both of these clubs won 90-plus games in the same season. So there's that, too.

Now add in the Tony Soprano Factor. Which was more than a quip, and more than a quote. It was part Maddon mind game, carefully crafted to send a "we're-not-afraid" message to both clubhouses. And it was part a reflection of just how hot this rivalry cauldron is suddenly boiling -- with a potential NLDS duel looming to push that thermometer even hotter.

So, finally, spin it all forward to the day this award gets handed out -- and the manager of the team with the best record in baseball finishes second (or even third), behind the manager of the hated Cubbies? Whoaaaahhh boy.

That sound you'll hear rumbling out of St. Louis will be loud. And it will be deep. And it will be 100 percent devoid of any hint of love for the Cubs, their fairy tale of a season and the manager who made it possible. I'm not sure there's ever been a manager-of-the-year election capable of producing that loud a sound, that deep an emotion. But ready or not, here it comes.

Adam Rubin of ESPN.com contributed to this story.